Oct 162012

Firearms and ammunition are one of three recommended investments that are sure to resonate with preppers.

Here’s an interesting article written for ‘ordinary people’ rather than preppers, and listing a number of alternate forms of investment for people who are skeptical about the long-term (and possibly even shorter term) validity of traditional types of investment (such as stocks/shares and bonds).

Number one on their list of alternate investments?  Guns and ammunition.  I was actually thinking about this as I walked the floor of a huge gun show in the Seattle area last weekend – used guns in particular hold their value very well.

Some guns I bought decades ago are definitely worth appreciably more these days – I’m not sure their appreciation has outstripped the rate of inflation, but tell me what else there is that you can buy and benefit from and still resell, years or decades later, for more than you paid for it originally.

Number three on the list is farm land.  This also speaks to the prepper mindset.  If (when!) you buy your retreat, get as much land with it as you can possibly afford.  This is one time when you shouldn’t hesitate to take on additional debt to cover the cost of the additional farmland, particularly if the land can be rented/leased out to a farmer or, for that matter, managed by yourself and your retreat community.

The ongoing ownership costs of the extra land you purchase will probably be balanced by the return you can somewhat passively generate from the land, and of course, if/when TSHTF, you’ll probably have your indebtedness wiped out by the massive disruptions to society and our economy.

Could we point out that this is part of the value/benefit of joining the Code Green Community – you’ll be buying into a substantial amount of land as well as a hardened secure retreat.

Number six on the list is timber.  This ties nicely into number three (land).  It is highly desirable that your retreat resource include plenty of timber – in a post-SHTF environment, wood will become invaluable as a lower tech source of energy and as a general purpose building material.

Number 11 is of passing historical interest, when it points out that in the earlier days of the US, whisky was used as a currency.  This is entirely in line with our projections for future currencies in a Level 3 type environment, where we predict that currencies will be things that have underlying value in them rather than abstractions of wealth (ie paper money) or traditionally expensive items but which have no underlying value-in-use (ie gold).

We do not agree with many of the recommendations in the article, either in general or from the specific perspective of preppers seeking investments not only for an ordinary/normal future, but for a potentially very changed future too.  Some of their recommendations have high risk factors associated with them, and others ignore the high transaction costs of buying and selling the items (for example, rare coins and stamps, both of which attract substantial transaction fees through dealers or auction houses to buy and sell).

But firearms, ammo, land and timber – two thumbs up for those recommendations.

Oct 142012

More freight is moved a greater distance in the US each year by rail than by any other method.

The movement of people away from rural areas and into the cities has meant that food has to travel longer distances between the people who grow it and the people who eat it.  The evolution from lots of small manufacturing companies to only a few mega-companies (in each industry) has caused a similar increase in distance as between where products are manufactured and where they are sold/consumed/used.

We can no longer obtain everything we need in our lives, ourselves, by walking or driving to the actual sources of the things we need and buying them directly.  We are reliant on other people, sometimes far away, transporting them to retail outlets conveniently close to us, and if those people stopped transporting the things we need, we’d not be able to go get them ourselves any more, because the distances are way too great.

Our ‘advanced’ economy also means that, in general, we are using more and more manufactured or processed or complicated things in our lives, rather than living primarily off items and objects produced locally.  Even if we could buy something we need locally, the chances are that the person who makes the thing we need is, himself, dependent on some raw material or essential ingredient that comes from far away.

We all sort of know this instinctively, but have you ever worked out what it actually means.  Here’s an interesting report about the nation’s rail system, and in particular, the table on page 6 is astonishing.  Without considering the distance the freight has to be moved, if you divide the total freight moved around the nation each year by the country’s population, for the last twenty years the answer has been a fairly consistent figure of 40 tons of freight is transported, each year, for each person living in the US.

This figure includes all sorts of things that we probably don’t even think about – the movement of fuel to power stations to create the electricity we use, for example, and not just stuff that needs to be moved to us for our consumption, but also the movement of stuff made by us, which is necessary for us to remain in employment.  It includes the domestic portion of goods being exported and also the domestic portion of goods being imported.

Our point is simply this.  Think about the magnitude of 40 tons of goods per person per year.  That’s almost a ton per week.  It is 220 lbs of materials of all different sorts, sizes and shapes, moved every day of the year, for each person in the country.  Some items are moved short distances only, others are moved from one side of the country to the other.

Now ask yourself – what would happen if something interfered with our nation’s transportation system, making it difficult for all this material to be efficiently moved every day (34.2 million tons every day)?  The answer, while unclear, is certainly not a positive one.

Now ask yourself the next question – is our nation’s transportation system a robust and secure system that can withstand occasional outages and service losses, or is it precariously balanced and vulnerable?

There are essentially five forms of freight hauling in the US.  Rail moves 39.5% of the total ton miles, followed by trucking (28.6%), pipelines (19.6%) and water (12.0%).  Air carries a mere 0.3% of total ton miles.

So air freight is an insignificant source of freight movements to start with.  Water freight is not something that can be appreciably grown – the few navigable rivers suitable for commercial barge freight are already being used for those purposes, and due to the slow speed of water traffic, it can only be used for some types of freight.

Pipelines show a surprisingly large percentage of total freight moved, but they are clearly only suited for some sorts of products – ie liquids and gases.  Pipelines are used to move bulk supplies of oil and gas around the country, but aren’t practical for just about anything else.

This leaves us with rail and trucking for just about everything else.  To a certain extent, it is fair to say that if there’s a reasonable sealed road, you can operate a truck on it, at least short-term (assuming there are no height, width, or loading restrictions).  In theory, the same is true of rail freight – if there’s a rail line, you can operate trains on it.

But let’s think some more about rail, which carries 39.5% of all freight (compared to trucking, which carries much less – 28.6%).  Rail is clearly a critical part of our freight system, and its importance is growing.  After decades of decline , about fifteen years ago rail freight experienced a turnaround, and has been steadily growing its share of long haul freight subsequently, in particular because it is such a cost-effective means of transportation.

First, a freight railroad needs high quality track for the very heavy trains to move over.  You can’t resurrect a stretch of abandoned rusting track, unevenly now misaligned, and with rotten cross-ties, and start operating freight trains over it immediately.  You’d probably need to upgrade the rail to a heavier type of rail, you’d need to redo the track ballast (and possibly even the underlying track bed) and the ties, and the signaling too, before you could start running trains.  There’s nothing impossible about doing that, but it for sure would take time.

Our nation does not have many railroads these days.  While there are about 140,000 miles of railroad track in total, much of this is on spurs, and there is not the same level of interconnected redundancy that there is with surface roads (of which there are 2.7 million miles of paved road plus plenty more unsealed road).

Have a look at this map (which only shows the major lines rather than minor spurs) then look at your state and count the number of ways trains can enter/exit your state.  If you live in WA, you have five paths, if you live in ID, you have six (or less – problems at key points inside the state could eliminate multiple paths in and out), if you are in MT, you have nine (or less), and so on.

The relatively small number of main railroads is exacerbated by ‘choke points’ on their routes – either tunnels or bridges.  In both cases, the loss of a tunnel or bridge would close a rail route for potentially many months or even years.

Okay, so maybe if a group of terrorists worked really hard, they could destroy 100 or 200 key bridges and tunnels that would bring the nation’s long distance rail traffic to almost a complete halt.  You can understand that, and you will probably also discount the likelihood of that occurring.

But there’s another entire level of vulnerability that you’re probably not even thinking of.  One of the big differences between rail and road traffic is that whereas road traffic is ‘self guided’, rail traffic has to be guided all the way.  The drivers of cars and trucks always know which side of the road to drive on, and rely on maps, GPS, and road signs to know where to turn to get to their destination.

Not so for rail.  Each train relies on a network of signals to tell it when it is safe to proceed or when it must stop and wait (even though the train’s driver might not know the reason for the delay or the rationale behind the ‘all clear/proceed’ signal), and every train relies on each switch that it crosses being set correctly, so that it is always switched onto the right track.

Signaling is an essential part of the safe and efficient operation of a rail system.  Most accidents (and nearly all of the preventable ones) that occur on a rail network are based on signaling failures.

Guess what.  Much/most of this control is managed by automated systems and computers these days.  If the computerized controllers were infected with a malicious bug, they might start switching east-bound trains onto tracks currently being used by west-bound trains, creating massive head-on collisions.  If the two oncoming trains were also controlled and timed so that the collisions would occur in cities, and if one train had inflammable or explosive materials, and the other train poisonous materials, the effects could be catastrophic.

In addition to setting switches incorrectly, a computer attack on railroad controllers could also misreport their status to the humans who do keep an overall supervisory level of control over their railroads.  They might think that a switch was set to ‘straight ahead’ whereas in reality the switch was set to ‘divert’.  Or maybe a switch could wait until one second before the train arrived at it to then switch over, at which point it would be too late for any override or other human response.

Of course, a switch that flicked over halfway through a train passing over it would simply derail the train and block the track for however long it takes to clear it.  It doesn’t necessarily take a railroad long to respond to and clear a single incident, but what if every train get derailed – how long to solve all those problems?

More benignly, the control systems could simply set all signals at stop.  The rail system would be paralyzed, and a return to manual control would massively reduce the volume of freight which could be transported.  Much of our rail system is single track – one track is shared alternately by trains traveling in opposite directions, a situation which requires careful sequencing and control.

Our point is this – there are some single points of vulnerability and failure that could essentially zero out our rail system if they were to fail.  And it isn’t just us hypothesizing about this – read this report where the US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, specially refers to the vulnerability of railroads to computer/cyber attack.  Indeed, he talks about our nation being at risk of a cyber-Pearl Harbor.

Let’s think things through a little bit more.  If our rail system fails, we have only one fall-back option to replace the trains – truck based shipping.  But we don’t have the trucks available to suddenly handle a 150% increase in freight.  For every ten trucks on the road now, we’d need to add another 15 – where will they all come from?  And also, what would happen to our already congested roads?  If they suddenly had to handle 2.5 times the number of trucks there already are, what do you think will happen to congestion and travel times?

Even if we could miraculously get the extra trucks needed, the impact on our economy would be enormous.  Trucked freight costs five to ten times more than railed freight (per ton/mile).

Oh – and when we said, above, that road transportation is self guided, we’re only half right about that.  Think about driving anywhere – sure, you’ll follow street signs and use common sense, but there’s something else you’ll come across sooner or later.  Traffic lights.  As you know, even the failure of one single traffic signal can screw up traffic for blocks and blocks, and even if a policeman manually directs traffic, he never seems to do as good a job as a traffic light does automatically.

All traffic lights are computer controlled.  Some are semi-independent, controlled on a fixed/demand driven process by the traffic around them, others are moderated by central computer systems, but all of them use computer controllers.  What happens if they stop operating, or if they start misbehaving?  At best, you’ll have gridlock across the nation.  At worst, if traffic lights start going green in all directions at once, you’ll have accidents galore.

So, to circle back to our opening point.  We all rely on the safe and efficient transportation of 40 tons of freight a year to support our lives and our lifestyles.  And while those 40 tons of freight comprise a massive variety of different products and modes of transport, both in your local area and elsewhere in the country, with a chain of dependencies that we can’t even start to guess at, the uncomfortable reality is that just a very few failures in a limited number of key parts of the national transportation system could cause the entire system to come falling down.

Add to that the ‘just in time’ delivery system which relies on the ability of goods to always arrive where they are needed, at the time they are needed, and with little or no reserve supplies kept anywhere, and the net result could be that a failure of the transportation system 1500 miles away from you ends up with life threatening shortages of essential items in your area, too.

Being reliant on the proper movement of 40 tons of stuff a year is a huge dependency, and one we can do little to directly control.  Are you worried about this?  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is.  Don’t you think you should be, too?

Oct 092012

A classic Geiger counter, this one a government design made in the 1950s and 1960s.

If you’ve ever seen any movie that features a radiation risk to the characters, you know what they do to measure the radiation.  They have a ‘Geiger counter’ device that makes a clicking noise, which increases in intensity until it sounds like a hailstorm on a tin roof when the characters are at risk of too much radiation.  Easy and simple, yes?

Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, there’s a lot more to measuring radiation than simply buying a ‘Geiger counter’ from the Universal Studios Prop department.

The first thing to appreciate, in deciding how to detect and measure radiation levels and risks, is what types of radiation may be present and need to be detected and measured.

In our recent article on radiation and fallout risks, we explained the essential properties of five different types of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray).  All of these five types are potentially harmful, but not all need to be detected.

You can eliminate any need to detect neutron radiation right from the get go.  Neutrons are released as part of a nuclear explosion, but they are not released by normal radioactive materials on an ongoing basis.  You may possibly be exposed to a brief ‘flash’ of neutrons as part of a nearby nuclear explosion, but if you are close enough to be harmed by the neutrons, you’ll almost certainly be killed by the heat or blast from the explosion anyway.

So now we are down to only four types of radiation to consider.  According to this source, most of the residual radiation to be found in fall-out comprises beta and gamma radiation.  There are relatively trivial amounts of alpha radiation also present.

Alpha particles are both good and bad.  They are good inasmuch as they only travel a very short distance (an inch or so) and are blocked by even a single sheet of paper.  But they are very bad if an alpha-emitter (anything that is giving off alpha particles) is ingested into your body – the damage from alpha particles is estimated to be 10 – 100 times more serious than the damage from beta and gamma radiation.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if there are alpha emitters all around you, as long as they are at least an inch away, and as long as there is no danger of accidentally ingesting them.

The short range of alpha particles also makes them harder to detect.  This contrasts with beta radiation, which typically travels 6 ft – 10 ft and will usually be stopped by heavy clothing or thin sheets of metal or plastic.  Gamma rays are the easiest to detect from a point of view of how close you need to be to the radiation source, because they can travel a huge distance, and they also require considerable shielding to block.

From the point of view of measuring the radiation from external sources that travels inside a retreat, the only type of radiation you are likely to need to worry about is gamma radiation.  Neither alpha nor beta radiation will make it in through the walls.

It is important to understand the range of the different sources of radiation so that you know how to use and interpret the results of any radiation testing and measurement you are conducting.  To consider these three sources, an alpha detector will only give valid results if it is within half an inch or so of the potential source of radiation, whereas a gamma detector can sense radiation over a broad area.

Measuring Radiation Inside Your Retreat

It is of course sensible to measure the level of gamma radiation inside your retreat.

You might think there’s little point in this, because there’s nothing you can do in response to the radiation that is reaching inside your retreat, but that’s not entirely correct.  Even if it is correct, it gives you an understanding for if your entire retreat has been compromised and you need to evacuate it or not.

If radiation levels are becoming significant, you can then use a measurement device to find the safest part of your retreat and concentrate your time in that area, and add extra barriers around that inner part of your retreat to keep the levels inside it as low as possible.

Measuring Radiation Outside Your Retreat

The other main use for radiation measuring devices is to see how safe it is outside.  Because most (but not all!) of the radioactive materials created and released by a nuclear event (typically a bomb explosion or power plant release) have relatively short half-lives, if you detect a significant level of exterior radiation, you’ll hopefully find that it will decline appreciably within a reasonable period of time and reduce down to acceptable levels.  This will of course require taking regular readings and surveys of the radiation levels around your property.

If the radiation levels are high but not dangerously high, we’d probably measure them every day until such time as they stopped increasing, and then perhaps every week as they decrease again.

Remember that fallout may take anywhere from a day to a month or more to reach the ground, and if the event that created the fall-out is ongoing (either multiple bombs or a power plant with a continuing problem), there could well be days or weeks that pass before the maximum radiation levels are reached.

If the radiation levels become dangerously high, we’d suggest you go outside less frequently.

If after a month they still remain very high indeed and have not reduced substantially, you’re going to have to make some hard choices – can you realistically continue to wait out the radiation decline inside your retreat (and are the radiation levels safely low inside?), or do you need to consider abandoning your retreat and moving somewhere less contaminated?

There’s no real way to predict in advance if you’ll be ‘lucky’ and suffer only a low-level of radiation with a short half-life and rapid reduction in activity, or if you’ll be unlucky with a higher level of radiation and/or a much slower decline in radiation levels.

Considerations When Measuring

Measuring the radiation inside your dwelling is easy.  Just walk around the inside with a radiation meter and make notes of the radiation levels observed.  The radiation you are detecting is almost always gamma radiation.

Outside, you need to consider the impacts of alpha, beta and gamma radiation on the total readings.

It could be thought that to understand the level of alpha radiation in an area – say, for example, your front yard – you would need to therefore do a painstaking sweep over the ground in a series of lines each only half an inch apart from the other – this would be like mowing the lawn, but rather than with a mower that might have an 18″ – 24″ diameter blade, a mower with a half-inch blade.  In theory this is indeed the case, but in reality, it is generally acceptable, for our purposes, to assume that the fallout and contamination you are seeking to detect and measure is somewhat evenly distributed.  In other words, if you detect a certain level of radioactivity in one square inch of ground, the chances are that a square inch that is a foot or a yard away will have a similar level of radioactivity.  ‘Hot spots’ from fallout are more likely to be anywhere from several square feet in size to thousands of square feet in size.

So while you still need your alpha detector to be very close to the ground, it is acceptable to only selectively sample parts of the ground.  As long as the samples are reasonably consistent, you don’t need to test every square inch of every acre of your property in order to get a general feeling for radioactivity levels.

The lower the levels of radiation found, the less detailed you need to have your survey. The more radiation you find, the more carefully you want to understand where it is.

Establishing a Baseline Set of Data

We suggest you keep a record of the results, and that to make them consistent, you should have some specific locations (both inside and outside) where you place the meter and record the levels from those locations.  Not only should you get readings at the same places, and with the meter pointed the same way each time, you should also try to do it at the same time of day (the sun is a source of gamma radiation so you’ll get different results depending on where the sun is).

You should start doing that immediately, so you understand what the ‘best case’ baseline scenario is prior to any releases of radioactive materials.  Once you’ve built up a baseline, there’s little need to continue measuring during ‘normal’ circumstances, although repeating the measuring once every year or so would be interesting just to see if there are any surprises, and to make sure the meter is still reading the same as before (this is not a complete calibration process though – all you are doing here is checking the meter’s consistency at reporting low levels of radiation, a proper calibration exposes it to a high level radiation source as well to test its functionality when radiation is present).

Device Calibration

We mentioned calibration in the preceding section.  Radioactivity meters need to be calibrated and re-calibrated on an occasional basis – you should check with the manufacturer to see what their recommended frequency of calibration might be (and then perhaps arrange for recalibrations at intervals twice as long as recommended).

Some of the more modern devices have much less need for calibration, some of the older devices recommend annual recalibration.

You can do some calibrating yourself if you have a known source of radiation that is also sufficiently powerful to be meaningfully detected by your device.  Unfortunately (?) most common radiation sources that you might have (night sights on your firearms, watch hands that glow in the dark) release levels of radioactivity that might be too low to register on your device.  Plus they probably have tritium as their source, and tritium has a 12.4 yr half-life, so it is not giving a constant level of radioactivity itself to start with.  Old watches (from the early 1900s through about the 1960s) used radium, with a 1600 year half-life, but they are hard to find, and also have very low levels of radioactivity (about 1 mR/hr).

If you are getting your device recalibrated, you should ask if you can get a report to show how much adjustment was needed.  Clearly if the device was close to perfect, you can lengthen the interval between recalibrations.

Distinguishing Between Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Radiation

It can be helpful to understand the different types of radiation that is present on your property.  Note that many times, your device may be detecting a mix of all three types of radiation.

You can distinguish between the three different types simply.  If the radiation level drops off when you move the sensor just an inch or so away from the radiation source, then you know that you have some alpha radiation – it will be the difference between the radiation level measured right next to the source and the lower level measured a couple of inches away.

This can also be done by simply placing a sheet of paper between the source and the sensor, or by moving the sensor itself so the small window that allows relatively unimpeded movement by alpha particles is moved away from the source.

The next step is to distinguish between gamma and beta radiation.  Place a thin sheet (about 1/8th inch) of aluminum between the sensor and the source.  The reduction in radiation between the unobstructed and obstructed readings is the beta radiation from the source.

The balance is gamma radiation, both the normal background level of gamma radiation plus any additional coming from sources around you (and, in decreasing levels of intensity, from sources further and further away as well).

How Much Radiation is Safe?  When Does it Become Dangerous?

These are difficult questions to answer exactly.  To a certain extent, all radiation is cumulative, and so there is (sort of) no such thing as ‘safe’ radiation.  On the other hand, it takes a certain amount of radiation to have a measurable impact on a person’s health, and furthermore, we are all exposed to radiation every day – background ‘cosmic’ radiation, radiation from radon and other natural sources, and so on.

The ongoing low-level of exposure is used to justify additional radiation from things such as X-rays, airport security devices, and so on.  The reasoning is ‘Well, it is only a little bit more than you’re getting anyway from natural causes, so surely it doesn’t matter all that much’.  That reasoning is somewhat true, but also somewhat false, because, as we started off by saying, all radiation is cumulative.

Think of a person’s safe tolerance for radiation a bit like a bucket, and think of radiation like a tap.  Whether the tap fills the bucket slowly or quickly, the bucket still holds the same amount of water, doesn’t it.  The only difference is how long it takes, not how much water is required.

This analogy could possibly be slightly modified to consider the bucket as being one with a small little hole in it.  So if the tap is only open a crack and water very slowly pouring into the bucket, the tiny leak will have an effect on how much water it takes to eventually fill it, but if the tap is full on, then the bucket will quickly fill before any appreciable amount has leaked out the tiny hole in the bottom.

Lower levels of radiation can also be thought of a bit like cigarette smoking.  If you smoke cigarettes, you increase the chances of getting lung cancer, but you don’t guarantee that you’ll get lung cancer, and you don’t know if you’ll suffer the cancer in ten years, twenty years, or forty years after you start smoking.  Of course, if you smoke twice as many cigarettes, you’re more likely to get cancer and sooner than if you smoke very few.  Similarly, low levels of radiation increase the chances of you getting various types of cancers, but they don’t guarantee you’ll get them, and they don’t say exactly when you’ll get them.

High levels of radiation however work differently, and can be thought of instead as akin to a poison, and the only issue with very high levels of radiation is how quickly you get sick and die, rather than if and when and how.

We discuss this subject in more detail in a separate article.

Choosing Radiation Detectors

Different types of devices can detect different types of radiation and at different levels of radiation intensity.  There is no such thing as one single device which will do a good job of simultaneously detecting all the different types of radiation.

This is a complex subject, and so we’ll write about it in a separate article.


If some type of event results in a release of radioactivity in your area, you need to know what levels of radiation are entering your dwelling and surrounding you outside.  There is no accurate way of predicting the type or amount of radiation that might settle in your area, the only thing you can do is measure it subsequent to its arrival.

Radiation comes in three main forms, with different requirements for detecting and measuring.

Depending on the levels of radiation detected, and whether they are increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same, you will then be able to decide if your strategy will be to evacuate the area, to wait out the radiation until it declines to a safe level, or if the radiation is not significantly elevated to start with.

Please read the other articles in this series for more information about radiation.

Oct 082012

Radiation is nasty, for sure. But it can be survived, if you know what it is, what to expect, and what to do.

One of the classic doomsday scenarios, often inappropriately given way more prominence than it deserves, is some type of nuclear event that results in a massive release of radiation.

We think this is one of the reasons why underground bunkers are so popular.  But as we’ve analyzed in earlier articles, underground bunkers are seldom a good idea for preppers.  By the time you get to the underground bunker, it might be too late.  And, assuming you got to the bunker in time, and survived whatever the event was, you’d find the underground bunker a very inconvenient living space into the future.  By all means stick a basement underneath your retreat, but don’t make a basement or bunker the entire retreat!

Let’s understand the nature of radiation and fallout risks – from that understanding can follow a better appreciation of what one needs to protect against and how to do so.  The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are importantly different.

What is Radiation

The term ‘radiation’ covers a lot of different things.  Light is a form of radiation.  So are radio waves.  But for our purposes, radiation can be split into two types.  The first type is relatively safe, and is termed ‘non-ionizing’ radiation, and this includes radio and light waves, plus heat, sound, and various other things.  Non-ionizing radiation is a type of radiation that isn’t thought to make changes to the atomic structure of things it comes into contact with, but it may cause other sorts of changes or side-effects (as you’ll know any time you stick something in a microwave oven, which uses non-ionizing radiation to cook the food you placed in it), so it is not necessarily completely safe.

Our discussion in this article however is about ionizing radiation.  This is radiation that can change the make up of the individual atoms in things it comes into contact with.  That is almost always a bad thing, and in particular, it can break up DNA in living tissues, which can lead to the formation of cancers.

There are five major and relevant types of ionizing radiation, termed alpha, beta, gamma, neutron and X-ray.  Cosmic rays (primarily protons) are also ionizing, but they are a constant thing that does not change with a nuclear explosion, and so we can ignore them for this article’s purposes.

Let’s consider the main properties of these five types of radiation (and for the nuclear physicists reading, yes, we have simplified things somewhat, but hopefully have not compromised the overall accuracy of the article).

Alpha radiation

Alpha particles are the same as Helium-4 nuclei.  They comprise two protons and two neutrons.  They travel at about 5% of the speed of light (ie at a speed of about 10,000 miles in a second) but they are very short range – they typically only travel a couple of inches in air, and can be stopped by a single sheet of paper.

Because of their short-range and low penetration, alpha particles are not much of a problem.

Beta radiation

Beta particles are typically electrons (if you wanted to be fastidious you could say there may be some anti-matter positrons briefly present too, but let’s not dwell on that).  They are typically very fast-moving, and can travel greater distances than alpha particles, and will penetrate further as well (which is sort of implied by their greater range, of course).  They will be blocked by about 1/10th of an inch of aluminum or other metal, or by an inch or more of plastic.

Gamma radiation

Gamma rays are ‘highly energetic photons’.  In case that doesn’t explain much to you, they are fast-moving things (they travel at almost the speed of light) with no mass and no electric charge.  This makes them hard to block, and they can penetrate a considerable distance through most materials.  As a simplification, the more mass of material between you and the gamma rays, the better the material will act to attenuate (ie reduce) the amount of gamma radiation passing through it.

Gamma rays have an effective danger range of only a few miles, by which stage so few will remain as to no longer be harmful.  Depending on the magnitude of the original explosion and the amount of gamma rays released, this danger range is anywhere from under one mile to perhaps three miles.

Neutron radiation

Neutron radiation is – as its name implies – a stream of the sub-atomic particles we call neutrons.  It is also fast-moving, at a similar speed to that of alpha particles.

This type of radiation is nasty.  When a neutron hits an atom, it can change the atom into a different substance, and it can change a stable substance into an unstable (and therefore radioactive) substance.  Neutron radiation of a given level is generally said to be ten times more damaging than gamma or beta radiation.  Oh – and did we mention that they also penetrate very well, requiring a substantial thickness of material to block them.

Water and concrete are good blocking materials.

Neutron radiation has slightly less range than gamma radiation.


X-rays are similar to gamma rays and are sometimes released as secondary radiation as part of a radiation event, but are not a primary product released by radioactive material, and so can be ignored for the purpose of this article.

The Shared and Relevant Characteristics of Radiation

The previous section looked at five different types of ionizing radiation, all of which is harmful to living creatures.  They share a couple of important properties – they are all very fast-moving (even the slowest moves at a rate of about 10,000 miles per second) and they are all very small – some are so small as to have no mass or size at all (yes, we know that doesn’t sound sensible, but it is what it is).

They also have moderately short ranges – generally less than 5 miles, and sometimes less than 5 inches.

A nuclear explosion will almost instantly release lots of radiation, and in only a second or so, not only will this radiation have been released, but it will have also traveled as far as it is going to go.  In other words, if you see a nuclear explosion, by the time your eyes have blinked from the bright flash, you’ve already received all the radiation you’re going to get from the immediate explosion itself.

Depending on where you are, that is either a good thing or a bad thing.

What is Fallout

So, what is fallout?  Fallout is all the ‘stuff’ that was in and around the bomb.  Some of this was radioactive to start with – by which we mean, it was emitting ionizing radiation.  Some of the rest of it has become radioactive, as a result of neutron radiation changing the properties of the elements and making them into new radioactive elements.  To be pedantic, you could term this ‘radioactive fallout’ but it seems to often be referred to merely as ‘fallout’, even though not all fallout is necessarily radioactive (but, to a greater or lesser extent, most of it is).

In the case of a bomb that is exploded in the air, most of this fallout material is simply the remains of the bomb itself.  But if a bomb is exploded close to, on, or in the ground, then the neutrons from the initial explosion will react with the soil and any other materials close at hand (buildings, cars, people, whatever) and will make some of that material radioactive, and the force of the explosion will blow all this material up into the air as well, massively increasing the amount of radioactive stuff up in the air.

So far so good.  Now for the ‘fall’ part of the word fallout.  All that stuff in the air is going to gradually settle back down to earth.  An air explosion will typically blow its remaining ‘stuff’ way up into the upper atmosphere, and it will spread perhaps all around the world and gradually settle, more or less evenly, over a huge portion of the earth’s surface.  This is actually a good thing – there is unlikely to be any massive concentration of radioactive fallout in any one place as a result.

But the ground and near ground bursts are very different.  Some of the material will be hurled up into the upper atmosphere, and will slowly fall down over the weeks and months that follow, all around the world, the same as air burst type fallout.  But some of it will only go up a relatively small distance and will fall back to earth more quickly (usually within 24 hours), and more intensely.  Depending on things like wind and rain, this material is likely to come back down to earth in the area downwind of the explosion, and perhaps spread out over 50 – 300 miles.

A ground burst not only creates a massively greater amount of radioactive fallout, but it deposits it more quickly and in a more concentrated pattern.  This is all bad.

Fallout particles range in size from less than 0.1 microns in diameter up to many microns in diameter.  They are dangerous because wherever they land, they are emitting whatever type of radiation it is they will emit.  They can potentially be breathed in to your lungs, and – for example – if you then have an alpha radiation emitter in your lungs, it doesn’t matter that the alpha particles only travel an inch or two and are stopped even by a sheet of paper, because wherever it is they stop, and whatever damage they then do, it will be inside you and to part of you.

Not only can you breathe fallout particles in, you can ingest them from the water you drink, and the food you eat.  Plus, the vegetables and animals you in turn eat or take milk from are doing the same things, and so your food may not only have surface contamination, but may have internal contamination too.  You can reasonably wash fallout off the outside of some food, but you can’t get rid of it once it has become a part of the thing, itself.

How Long is Fallout Dangerous For?

There’s no exact answer to this, any more than there’s an answer to the question ‘How high is up?’.  The danger life of fallout depends on several things – the level of radiation being emitted, and the half-life of the radioactive materials in the fallout.  Fall-out has a veritable soup of different radioactive substances in it, all with different properties.

The ‘half-life’ of something is the time it takes to reduce in activity by 50%.  Half-lives can range in duration from the tiniest fraction of a second at one extreme, to thousands of years at the other extreme.

To give an example of how half-lives work, let’s say there is a product with a 10 day half-life.  If it is emitting 1024 units of radiation a second at the start of the measuring period, then in 10 days it will be emitting half that rate, 512 units/second.  Now for the trick.  In another ten days time, it doesn’t use up the other half, and drop to zero.  Instead, it uses up half of what remains, so it loses half of the 512 units, and at the end of the 20 days, it will be emitting 256 units of radiation/second.

In another 10 days (30 days total), it will be down to 128 units of activity per second.  At the 40 day point it is down to 64 units, at 50 days it is 32 units, and at 60 days – two months – it is now down to 16 units.

So the rate of reduction of radioactivity slows down.  The first 10 days saw a drop from 1024 units of radiation a second down to 512 units/second.  But the ten days from 60 days to 70 days sees a reduction from 16 down to 8 units – not really much of a change at all.  Furthermore, it sort of never ever gets all the way to zero.  When it is down to 1 unit, the next half-life period takes it to 0.5 units, then to 0.25, and so on down and down but never quite reaching zero.

If the acceptable level of radiation is, say, 10 units/second, then at the 70 day point, when it is down to 8 units a second, it has become relatively ‘safe’, and at the 80 day point and only 4 units a second, it is even safer still, and at 100 days (1 unit/second) you sort of forget about it entirely.

The good news is that many of the most radioactive substances have relatively short half-lives – their half-lives are short because they are so radioactive.  So while you read about radioactive contaminated materials with half-lives of thousands of years, it is usually the case that these very long-lived substances only emit low levels of radiation.

Defending Against Radiation and Fallout From a Nuclear Explosion

Your best defense against the initial release of radiation is to choose your location carefully, so you’re not within range of any likely targets.  If you’re a ‘glass half full’ kinda guy, the ‘good news’ is that if you are within range of the initial radiation release from a nuclear explosion, that is probably the least of your worries.  You’ll probably be toasted to death from the heat, or crushed by the blast, long before the radiation kills you.

The bigger risk is the fallout from the blast.  Again, you should choose your location as wisely as you can.  As long as you can keep at least 20 miles from all air-burst targets, you’re probably going to be okay from air burst effects.  Unfortunately, the ground bursts are much more troublesome, because who is to really know which direction for sure will be downwind on the day?  You don’t want to be within several hundred miles of targets that are likely to receive ground bursts.

What types of targets will qualify for ground bursts?  Only specialized targets, because for general effect and damage, air bursts are much more effective.  But things like missile silos will definitely get ground bursts, and depending on their nature, other ‘hardened targets’ may also get ground bursts.

There’s another factor at play, too.  Fratricide and general errors, failures and mistake.  Not all missiles that are sent in our direction are guaranteed to explode exactly on their designated targets, and at the heights programmed into their warheads.  Some may explode high, others low, and some might go way off target.  Not only are ICBMs a little-tested technology, but routes over the North Pole are difficult to navigate, and with the very high re-entry speeds, even  a slight second of delay can mean a missile is way off course or too high or too low.  Add to that possible distortions caused by anti-missile events, and also what is termed ‘fratricide’ – the result of one missile’s detonation impacting on other missiles close to it, and a high intensity exchange of warheads could well end up with explosions going off hundreds of miles from where they were planned.

So the further away you are from anywhere that might receive any type of attack, the better you’ll be.

Now, for the fallout protection.  If you end up getting a bucket load of high intensity fall-out dumped on you, and survive the initial experience, then you’re just plain completely out of luck for the next some decades, possibly even hundreds of years.  Your only strategy will be to shelter until the fallout has all settled, and then to evacuate to a safer area, probably tens or even hundreds of miles away.

If you however get only a mild level of fallout, you’d be well advised to stay inside and to filter your air supply until the fall-out has done its thing and settled.

Your initial forays outside (ie to sample the area for radioactivity levels) should involve you wearing protective clothing (ideally exposing no skin at all), a breathing mask and goggles, and a decontamination process outside your dwelling prior to re-entering it, so you don’t bring in any radioactive material upon your return.

Opinions differ as to how long to expect radiation levels in fallout to subside – perhaps because different types of nuclear weapons, and different scenarios for their use, result in different mixes of radioactive materials, with different levels of radiation being emitted and different half-lives..  It seems that using three to five weeks as a prudent period to allow for levels to appreciably drop might be appropriate, and so you should factor the ability to survive, entirely inside, for at least twice that period of time, so as to be reasonably well prepared for such situations.

You should also be measuring radioactivity levels yourself, and keeping a record of them so you can try to see what the trend lines suggest (although this is difficult because there are a mix of different materials with differing half-lives, so there is no simple curve that you can plot and extrapolate).

Note also that radiation will probably not be evenly distributed everywhere on your property.  You’ll want to survey the property, and to map out ‘hot spots’ and safe zones, and to then keep away from the hot spots (and/or take steps to mitigate the dangers they pose) while concentrating your ongoing activities in the safer areas.

Beyond that point, practical considerations also intrude.  If it is winter, and there’s no need to be outside, then of course you can play it safer and stay inside more.  But if it is summer and there is work to be done outside, you need to decide what to do, and maybe rotate outside assignments between different people in your community, spreading the exposure more widely.

A Different Scenario – A Nuclear Power Plant Problem

The good thing about a bomb is that it does its work all in a fraction of a second, and after that fraction of a second, it is done and finished.  Sure, you might have to live with the consequences for a long time, but at least the initial event that created the problem has ceased.

But a nuclear power plant problem can be an ongoing issue, that releases nuclear material not just for a split second, but for hours or even days or weeks.  You may have ongoing releases of new material for an extended time.

Perhaps the best (worst?) example of such a scenario occurred in Japan in March 2011 at the Fukushima Daichii power plant in Japan.  An earthquake caused the working reactors at the multi-reactor site to shut down, and emergency diesel power generators started up to keep the cooling pumps circulating water through the power plant cores.  The subsequent tsunami flooded the generator rooms, causing the generators to fail, and without power, the cooling pumps stopped, allowing temperatures in the reactor cores to go dangerously high, with three reactors melting down.

The problems started on 11 March, and significant releases of nuclear materials continued for two weeks or longer (depending on where you draw the line on ‘significant’ releases), and material was still being released a month after the event started.  Here’s a great timeline.

It is probable that less radioactive material, in total, was released at Fukishima than at Chernobyl, but it occurred more recently, over a longer time line, and in full real-time view of the world’s news programs, making it a higher-profile event.

Furthermore, the Chernobyl disaster was relatively short-lived (pretty much all over and done with in less than a day), and we in the west only got wind of it (almost literally so) some time after the problem had been controlled, so there was less opportunity for angst and anguish.

There are a lot of variables at play with a nuclear power plant release of radioactive material.  It could involve any or all types of radiation, and it might be released into the upper atmosphere or instead have a short ride up and a fast ride down again, pooling in concentrated area.  Have a look at this map of contamination levels that were still in place in 1996, ten years after the event, to get a visual feeling for how strange the pattern of radiation concentration can be.

Try and locate up wind of nuclear power plants, and the further away you can be from them, the less risk you’ll run (although note the distribution pattern from Chernobyl where there was a relatively safe zone in the middle distance, with more dangerous areas both closer to the power plant, as you’d expect, but also further away, too).


Releases of radioactivity, whether from power plants and other accidental/peaceful means, or from nuclear weapon explosions, are definitely not a good thing, but they can be planned and prepared for, and generally, most times, can be survived as well.

As regards nuclear explosions, if you survive the blast and heat itself, you’ve also probably survived the initial release of radiation.  But the impacts of fallout are less predictable and will take place over a longer time.

You need a way to seal your retreat and filter the air you allow in, you need procedures to monitor and measure the radiation levels around you, and you need decontamination procedures when people leave your retreat, go into potentially contaminated areas, and then wish to return back into the retreat.

Interestingly, almost none of the challenges posed by radioactivity releases require, or are solved by, an underground bunker.

Oct 082012

You can’t truly appreciate the malevolence of a fire until you’ve experienced one up close that directly threatens you and your possessions.

One of the positive features of a retreat location is proximity to timber.  Trees and their wood can be used for many things – as an energy source for heating and cooking and many other things (even as a source of wood gas or ‘producer gas’ to power vehicles).  And of course, they can also be used as a construction material for just about any type of construction project, or for outdoor fencing, and so on.

But there’s a downside to being close to a forest lands.  Forest fires.

No matter where we live, we probably have become quite used to what seems like an annual event where – particularly in California – home owners in the furthest out suburbs where suburbia ends and forest starts discover to their apparent shock and horror that their homes are at risk from forest fires.  We know this will happen, because we see it on television every year, even if we live thousands of miles away; but the home owners themselves appear to be taken by surprise.

It seems that the greatest amount of destroyed forest comes from fires started by lightning, but the greatest number of fires are started by people (interesting information here).

Now there’s not a lot that can be done to pre-emptively prevent lightning starting a forest fire (this is an understatement!).  And, alas, there’s not a lot that can be done about human stupidity, either, and most of the time, you can’t prevent everyone from accessing all forested lands.  Besides which, even if you can control access to your land, the problem and the vulnerability could be 10 or 20 miles away, and a fire that was started there could then travel to your land.

We also know that some fires are deliberately lit.  Arson is a known issue, but fortunately fairly rare.

However, there’s a new risk as well, which, it is speculated, may have interesting implications for the US.  Apparently Europe had many more than normal forest fires this year, and there is speculation (see this article) that some of them may have been deliberately started by Al Qaeda terrorists.

If there is any truth in this, there would be every reason to expect AQ to do such things in the US too.

Is the Impact of Human Started Fires as Big as it Seems?

One interesting thing to consider, and which many conservationists overlook, it that wildfires are natural and normal.  Fire is a standard part of the life cycle of forests, and it could even be argued, is essential and ‘good’.

Although conservationists begrudge every tree that is burned, no matter what the cause of the fire, there are a couple of other perspectives.  The first perspective is that if an area was not burned by a fire that was accidentally – or even deliberately – started by a person, then maybe it would have been started by lightning instead?  It is hard to know what percentage of the manmade forest fires are actually ‘extra’ forest fires, compared to merely being started by a person today rather than by a lightning bolt tomorrow.

The second perspective is that some people suggest if forest fires don’t regularly occur, there is an accumulation of more and more burnable material on the forest floor, which makes forest fires, when they inevitably do occur, more dangerous and helps them to spread further and faster.

Interfering with mother nature is seldom a good thing, and the ‘law of unintended consequences’ seems to consistently bring about unexpected (but never good) outcomes.

However, we make these comments merely to put the overall issue in broader context.  If you are potentially vulnerable to forest fires at your retreat location, you need to take active steps to minimize your vulnerability.

Implications for Preppers

Forest fires, including those started by terrorists, are not so much an ‘end of the world as we know it’ scenario, but rather an issue to keep in mind and something to anticipate/avoid if/when you find yourself in a Level 2/3 situation and needing to survive at your retreat for an extended period of time.

If your retreat is close to (or actually in) a forest, then you need to consider your fire protection strategies.  Even if your region has seldom been troubled by forest fires in the past, that’s no reliable predictor that an AQ operative with a can of petrol and a box of matches mightn’t pay your area a visit one summer soon.

It is also a possibility, in a Level 2 or 3 situation, that an ‘opposing force’ that wishes you harm (or which simply is jealous of your success and wishes to impact on it) may deliberately set fire to your forest lands, or use fire as a tool to force you out of your retreat.

You need to consider three things :

1.  Managing your forest lands to create fire-breaks so that you can localize any fires rather than risk losing every tree you have.

Because it can take 15 – 25 years to regrow a usable inventory of trees on any land, a fire that wipes out much of your inventory of trees doesn’t just give you a difficult time for the next year or two, but instead, it massively changes your resource inventory for a decade or two into the future.  You absolutely must ensure that any forest fire will not destroy your entire inventory of trees.

2.  Designing and developing your dwelling and other buildings so they are not just fire resistant but fire-proof, and landscaping around them to keep fires as far away as possible.

This should go without saying, but if I had a dollar for every retreat home I’ve seen built out of wood (and with a shake roof), I’d be a wealthy man indeed.  A true retreat needs to be designed and built for function, not for aesthetics.

3.  An air filtration system so that if the air around you gets contaminated by smoke from a fire you can still maintain a reasonably healthy atmosphere inside your main retreat.

Even a fire ten miles away can severely impact on your air quality, depending on winds and other atmospheric conditions.

This third point is perhaps the least understood of all.  We’ll write about it in greater detail in a separate article.


It is sensible to locate your retreat close to a forest.  The wood will be an invaluable resource in any level 2 or 3 situation.  But forests are vulnerable to forest fires, whether naturally caused by lightning, accidentally caused by stupid people, or deliberately started by terrorists or arsonists.

Part of planning your retreat is to be cognizant of the dangers posed to it by forest fires and to prepare as best you can so as to reduce the risk such inevitable (albeit hopefully rare) events may present to both you and your trees.

Oct 012012

The US alone uses a staggering 35+ billion disposable diapers every year. A worldwide shortage is about to occur.

Our first ever article on this site was about how a fire in a factory in a small town in Germany had worldwide implications in terms of creating a global shortage of a material needed in the production of new autos (in their brake and fuel systems).

This one fire in one factory created a supply chain problem for 3 – 6 months, and we used this to show the way the world is becoming increasingly dependent on – and vulnerable to – obscure things in far away places.  Rather than the world becoming more ‘fault tolerant’ and the global economy meaning we have more and more sources of everything and anything, the exact opposite has happened.  Production of sometimes critical items has been concentrated in only a few places, to serve the entire world.

It is almost six months from that inaugural post, and so to celebrate our ‘six month anniversary’ we’d like to circle back to where we started, and offer up another surprising example of a supply-side vulnerability.  This time it is with baby diapers.

A fire – this time in a chemical factory in Japan – has killed the production of a chemical used in disposable diapers – the chemical substance that makes the disposable diapers so super-absorbent.  This one factory had been producing 20% of the world’s entire supply of the chemical, and there was already a tight supply situation.  Details here.

So dropping from 100% to 80% mightn’t seem like a big deal, but it could have a massive impact on diaper pricing, potentially even doubling their cost, until such time as new capacity comes on-stream.  Think of it like a freeway – at 80% of capacity, even at 95% of capacity, traffic flows smoothly, at 100% of capacity, traffic jams up and at 101% of capacity, you have an instant parking lot.  Just like a small change in freeway traffic can have a big change in the driving experience, the supply/demand curve shows big changes in pricing can be caused by only small changes in demand.

What This Really Means to Us as Preppers

Of course, most of our lives were unchanged by the loss of the German factory’s chemical production and its impact on new auto manufacturing, and most of our lives will be unchanged by a diaper shortage too.  We’re not suggesting you need to stockpile obscure chemicals used in either auto or diaper manufacturing!

We’re simply offering this up as another example of how the world is becoming more vulnerable to unexpected events and the potentially major and long-term disruptions that may follow from them.  Rather than becoming more fault tolerant, today’s society and economy is more fault sensitive.  A prudent prepper is aware of the vague vulnerabilities in the world today, and carefully identifies the key critical parts of their life and their lifestyle, and creates backup plans for how to safeguard these things in the event of future disruption.

Whether you’re planning to withstand minor or major events, for the short-term or the long-term, it pays to be aware of what you rely upon and need, and to ensure you have plenty of this on hand.  If you wear glasses, you make sure you have spare pairs, just in case.  If you need medications, you keep as abundant a supply as you can, so if there’s a supply disruption for six months or a year, your personal health isn’t compromised.

And of course, if you like to, ummmm, eat food and drink water, you make sure that if there are disruptions to the supplies of both, you have alternate sources or supplies on hand for these essential parts of our lives, too.

Happy prepping.  Thanks for your support these first six months.  Hang around – we’ve lots more planned for the next six months and beyond – always assuming, of course, that we don’t have the shit hitting the fan in the meantime!  🙂